Steve Mason – Lost and Found

This profile originally appeared on Gigwise on April 27th 2010.

Sitting in the sundrenched beer garden of an east London pub, Steve Mason is talking about a recent broadsheet interview he gave which he believes “missed a bit of a trick” by proclaiming his new album to be about depression. “This isn’t an album about depression at all, it’s not about depression or anything,” he says, before highlighting that only the album’s title track ‘Boys Outside’ mentions the disorder – and even that song is “about saying goodbye to depression”.

Mason’s frustration is perhaps understandable. While it is true that the Scotsman has suffered from depression for “about 15 years”, ‘Boys Outside’ is far from an irksome deference to the disorder. In places, for example, like on the opener ‘Understand My Heart’ or ‘I Let Her In’, Mason recalls romantic failure as a hypnotic mixture of acoustic guitar and subtle synthesisers unravel themselves softly in the background. And as one has come to expect from the singer who found fame in the mid-90s as the outspoken frontman of the critically acclaimed The Beta Band, there are also songs about how nothing is sacred anymore, and the meagreness of politics. It’s no surprise then that ‘Boys Outside’ has already been greeted with the kind of positive reception Mason once came to expect.

“It’s amazing, it’s already exceeded my expectations I have to say,” Mason says of the kind response so far. “I’m doing sort of Beta Band levels of press – we used to do a lot back then – so it’s great. I mean, I’m very happy with it, I know it’s a good record – but I suppose every record I’ve ever put out I always thought it was amazing at the time.”

Before we met, I had been warned by people who have interviewed Mason in the past to expect one of two receptions: he could be either welcoming or, to quote one journalist who spoke to him over a decade ago, “very rude”. This is, after all, the same singer who while promoting The Beta Band’s self-titled debut album in 1999 famously described it as a “crock of shit” – an erroneous statement which seemed to pre-empt the band’s eventual demise five years later.

Only it’s not. Today, as he sips on a coca cola drink, Mason, now 37, is far from the confrontational character that once greeted interviewers. His sentences, like when he’s discussing the recent TV leadership debates – “I watched little odds and ends of it yeah, just because I was hoping that Gordon Brown might smack one of them in the mouth at one point but he never did” – are frequently punctuated by a warm smile. He’s also visibly relaxed, and appears finally, after a six-year period of releasing albums under different pseudonyms, including most recently as the electro act Black Affair, to be at ease in his own skin, which is perhaps why he’s chosen to release his new album under his own name.

“I think it’s just a case of getting a bit older and feeling probably more comfortable with myself, and less like I want to hide from everything all the time,” he says, frankly. “Being able to kind of stand up and say, ‘Yeah I made this,’ rather than hiding behind all these different names.”

In fact, Mason says he began writing ‘Boys Outside’ with the intention of releasing it as the follow-up to Black Affair’s debut album ‘Pleasure Pressure Point’, but “then I just lost heart in it – in the synths, the drums and stuff like that – and I hadn’t really picked up an acoustic guitar for a long time”. When he did, he says he wrote a song “pretty much straight away” and continued to write tracks acoustically at his cottage near St Andrews, in Fife, before contacting Richard X, who had already agreed to work with him on Black Affair’s second record. Despite the producer’s pop-dance background as the mastermind behind chart hits for the Sugababes and Liberty X, Mason says Richard X “loved” his new direction, so much so that he bankrolled everything until they secured a publishing deal with Domino. He also admits that he felt the same way about handing over the reigns to someone else after producing all of the albums by his post-Beta Band guises.

He smiles, for example, when I mention a YouTube video of the pair in the studio, which shows Richard X telling the singer to “just do it” as he hesitates over a guitar part. “Yeah, which I really liked,” he says of the producer’s assertiveness, “because no one’s really done that to me before.”

It’s testament to what the pair have produced that Mason, having recently relocated to London, says he’s now excited about “being kicked into this whole promotion thing” again.

“I feel very differently about it than I used to feel. I used to think of it as…” he pauses, allowing the sound of two drinkers kicking a football nearby to intensify, before continuing, “as something I didn’t really want to do. You wanted to see the articles in the paper or magazine – or whatever it was – but you didn’t necessarily want to go and have to speak to the journalist about it.”

Mason believes that the journalists he’s met in recent weeks have been different – probably, he thinks, because of the Internet – to those he’s experienced in the past. In the days of The Beta Band, he says, they “were all fucking major cokeheads that felt like they were part of the band and that kind of thing”, whereas now they “seem to go to a lot more effort”. His only gripe seems to be with the NME. “Read stuff like the NME now and it’s like The Sun,” he says. “It’s written for people with no brains, but people have those brains.”

While extensive sessions of hypnotherapy over the last two years have helped erase many of Mason’s demons, it’s encouraging to see that he’s not lost all of his forthright sincerity. For instance, he’s still clearly frustrated by the country’s political system. Album track ‘Yesterday’, he explains, is “about gathering a group of people together and marching on the Houses of Parliament and Whitehall with petrol bombs and levelling it to the fucking ground, and rebuilding the political system from the ground up”.

Does he think the upcoming election will make any difference? “No it’s fucking farce,” he replies, sharply. “No absolutely not, of course not.” He stops. “The government and the banks hate the people of this country, they hate the general public, they have no interest in them whatsoever, and that’s a very dangerous situation.”

As we part, I wonder whether Mason ever feels as if there’s any unfinished business with his previous outfits, notably The Beta Band. “No, I’ve never felt that at all.” A grin suddenly smothers his face. “It’s a good way of putting it though, I’ve never heard anyone manage to bring up The Beta Band with the unfinished business thing – that’s a good one.”

So this genuinely feels like a new start, I say.

“Yeah, it definitely feels right, it feels like a lot of different things have come together, and I’m very lucky that I’ve still got a lot of support out there,” he responds, sincerely. “There’s always been a willingness for me to make a really, really good record, which is really nice. I really appreciate it, and now I’ve actually managed to do that people are like, ‘Ah thank fuck for that, he’s actually done something that we all really, really like.’” And with that, another smile emerges.

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Plan B – Strictland Business

This profile originally appeared on Gigwise on March 22nd 2010.

In an upstairs room of a ramshackle old pub in East London, Ben Drew sits frantically rubbing his leg. Despite being kitted out in a thick woollen hat, pale denim jacket and jeans, it’s clear from the thickness of each icy breath that accompanies every word that even the hardiest of arctic explorers would do well to survive in this environment. Not even the army of heaters that his publicist has assembled on the floor seems capable of breaking through the impenetrable cold front.

While this uncomfortable environment would, you imagine, irk most musicians, for Drew – better known as the rapper Plan B – it presents little concern. After all, as someone who grew up only a handful of postcodes further east from here in Forest Gate, he’s experienced far worse. His debut album, ‘Who Needs Actions When You Got Words’, for example, ambitiously tackled the type of issues – from knife crime to underage sex – that Drew regularly encountered first hand. But despite earning him a Top-30 chart hit in 2006, the record’s coarse – and often angry – narrative, which was constructed around an acoustic guitar, proved too much for some, even managing to raise an eyebrow from British hip-hop’s most prominent exponent, Tim Westwood. Consequently, the then 23-year-old’s music career stalled somewhat, and he seemed to disappear almost as quickly as he had arrived armed with his self-styled mantra: “This is my time now, you get me? Fucking cunts.”

It speaks volumes, then, that we’re here today braving the elements to discuss Drew’s forthcoming second album, ‘The Defamation of Strictland Banks’. Like his debut, the 13-track LP continues to explore Drew’s interest in the craft of story telling, only this time it’s based around the fictional character of Strictland Banks, a sharp-suited British soul singer who loses everything when he ends up in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. It’s a vibrant, voluptuous-sounding record, which references Stax, Motown and, most poignantly, soul music. “It just started from my love of soul music,” says Drew, of the album’s origins.

Now 26, Drew says he’s been writing soul songs ever since he was introduced to Michael Jackson as a seven-year-old – it’s only now that he feels secure enough to actually sing them. “I was going to be a singer but I had a lack of confidence in everything – the way I dressed, the way I sung,” he admits. It was only when he performed his debut album with a backing band that Drew learned for the first time about the technical side to singing. “As soon as that happened everything just clicked, and I went from being just a songwriter behind the scenes to a singer-songwriter.”

This newfound confidence, Drew says, was aided by the fact that his new material was “just too good for me to fucking put on a shelf and let rot and not show to the world”. He stops to stimulate some more blood flow through his cold body. “I’m all about that,” he continues. “You make something that’s just good then why hide it because it doesn’t fit into your profile or how people perceive you.”

When I interviewed Drew shortly after the release of his first record, he displayed a similar level of courage towards overcoming stereotypes. He had then, after all, taken it upon himself to try his hand at mastering a music genre that’s still, in many people’s eyes, performed most successfully by black artists. Yet in 2006, as the lyrics on his debut album highlighted, Drew’s bravado often manifested itself through his own anger. Talking to him today, however, he’s noticeably both physically and mentally more relaxed – the result of a year attending anger management classes.

“I was an angry guy wasn’t I?” he admits, when I ask him if he thinks he’s changed. “You could hear it.” After a lifetime spent solving “problems with my fists” on his estate, Drew admits he found it “very hard” when suddenly confronted by the music business. He needed help. “There’s a lot of people that don’t want to go to counselling because they think it’s mad, they think it’s admitting that you’re kind of mentally ill,” he says. “And it’s not that at all – it just means that you’re emotionally ill and you learn how to control your emotions and how they affect your life.” He says his anger stemmed from his belief that “everybody’s got something that’s been broken inside of them because their parents put it there” and describes his 12 months receiving therapy as “the most unhappiest year”. But he would advise anyone with similar issues to get help. “I’ve spent a lot of time trying to fix those things and I’ve come out the other side.” He smiles. “Music is my therapy.”

As well as music, Drew’s also been helped by his passion for film – something which he first took an interest in as a child and decided to explore more seriously following the release of his first album. His credits so far include an appearance in BAFTA-award winning actor Noel Clarke’s directorial debut Adulthood in 2008 and, more recently, alongside Sir Michael Caine in Daniel Barber’s Harry Brown. The latter film, Drew says, “made people take me more seriously” and encouraged him to write his first full-length feature.

Entitled Ill Manors (“Spelt Manors as in where you’re from,” he points out), the film, which is due to go into production later this year, follows “six short stories that all mix into each other, but come to a head at the end”. It is, he says more plainly, “the hip-hop musical version of [Paul Haggis’s 2005 film] Crash”.

Drew says he’s also hoping to shoot a featurette about his present alter ego, Strictland Banks. But first, he’s focusing on the album, which he poignantly describes as a “film for the blind”. “For me, I guess, that’s my aspiration in life,” he adds. “When people see the name Plan B or see my face it represents the way in which I express myself, which is an amalgamation of music and films.” There’s also, of course, the task of singing in public. I wonder if he’s worried whether his new direction might alienate his hip-hop fans. “I’m aware that there are fans out there that might feel alienated by this but I feel like I cater for them; I feel like I have catered for them, they just don’t know it yet,” he replies enigmatically, adding that a hip-hop album, which “explains all the gaps” in Strictland’s story, will be released later this year on his own label, Pet Cemetery.

I had intended to ask Drew whether he was now a rapper or singer, yet, as another cold breath emerges from his mouth, its clear that he already sees himself as so much more. He, instead, draws a parallel to culture’s desire to evolve, as it always has done. Another icy breath emerges. “And I guess that’s with me: I change with the times but it’s not anybody else’s time, it’s my time, you know what I mean?”

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Wolfmother – A new moon rising

This profile originally appeared on Gigwise on September 2nd 2009.

Andrew Stockdale is scanning the glamorous, shiny bedroom of a central London hotel looking for somewhere to sit. Considering there are only two options – neither of which includes a bed (curiously, the room appears to be lacking one) – it’s not a decision the Wolfmother frontman is taking lightly. He puts his hands on his hips and emits a sigh, which is followed by another one. Then – finally – a breakthrough.  “There,” he says intently, before marching over to what he labels the “psychologists couch”.

It turns out to be an apt choice for Stockdale, who is in town to preview Wolfmother’s forthcoming second album ‘Cosmic Egg’ at an intimate pub gig. As one would expect from a band whose 2005 self-titled debut was both praised and maligned by critics for its grandiose, Led Zeppelin-echoing classic rock riffs and emphatic vocals, ‘Cosmic Egg’ is a bold, brash and blisteringly loud – very loud – listen. But it almost never happened at all. After three years of constant touring and acceptance speeches, the highlight of which came at the 2007 Grammy Awards when the band collected the award for Best Hard Rock Performance, Stockdale suddenly found himself on his own last summer when fellow Wolfmother co-founders bassist Chris Ross and drummer Myles Heskett quit citing “longstanding frictions”. While the departing pair outlined plans to form an a new band, Stockdale vowed to continue with a new line-up – or, at least, that’s what his record label said in a statement at the time. In reality, it appears the singer was actually unsure as to whether to continue Wolfmother or not.

“Well, um, yeah, I guess I just became overcome with strategy, eh,” he says, deconstructing the situation. “Psychology, politics and strategy from all these different angles. And then I was just like, man, it’s just music, eh. I remember New Years Eve at the end of 2008 and I was like, I am so glad 2008 is finished, that was a tough year.”

He’s not kidding either. Although Ross and Heskett officially announced their departure in the days immediately after the group’s fraught set at Byron Bay’s Splendour In The Grass festival in August last year, the origins of their decision, Stockdale says, can be traced back to when Wolfmother re-grouped in Sydney following an eight month break to begin work on their second album. Even then, there was a lot of “confusion and uncertainty”, according to Stockdale, who eagerly flew down from Brisbane as soon as he received the call from his bandmates.

“We were almost there, eh,” he says, recalling the period. “It was like the last day before we sent the demos off to the producer to start the record that Chris just decided he wanted to do something else. So I was just like…at that point I just didn’t put up any resistance, I was like, ‘Cool man, I’m glad you made a decision’. Because we were just…”

In limbo?

“Yeah, sure. Even if it was just a matter of, like, making coffees in a café or something. At some point I just needed to know what I was gonna do, rather than just waiting for the phone to ring or someone to kind of say, ‘Yeah, we don’t know.’”

Stockdale looks sincere when he admits that the eventual split was “disappointing, but also a relief”. “We were trying to be really nice,” he says. “The nicer we were to each other the more transparent it was. We didn’t even argue.” The singer suddenly smiles and adopts a mock voice. “We were just like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s going really well. Yeah, this is great, that drum part’s fantastic, that guitar parts really good.’ And you’d just be like, ‘Ah fuck, we’re just past our used by date.’”

The same can’t be said of Wolfmother’s new line up. Now a four piece with Ian Peres on bass, guitarist Aidan Nemeth and drummer Dave Atkins, Stockdale says his only requirement in the search for Ross and Heskett’s replacements was that they possessed “a bit of passion” and “emotion” – two traits his former bandmates appear to have lacked towards the end. He fondly remembers Wolfmother MK-II’s first rehearsal. “We just put all the amps in the car and went in and turned all the amps on and made some noise and jammed till like twelve and went and got a kebab and a beer and I was like, Man, this is like a good feeling, eh. Just the band, like, everything aside and all the stuff that had happened, it’s good to just…it’s something that I enjoy as a person.”

With renewed vigour, Stockdale and the rest of Wolfmother travelled to Los Angeles in March to record ‘Cosmic Egg’. The album, produced by Alan Moulder (Nine Inch Nails, The Blonde Redhead), picks up from where ‘Wolfmother’ left off. Its songs range broadly from the “stoner rock” of ‘California Queen’ to the wistful romance of ‘Far Away’, which Stockdale seems particularly attached to. “Yeah, I guess it’s like with touring and stuff like that it’s kind of like a warped lifestyle,” he says of the song’s lyrics. “You’re in hotels, you are by yourself and I guess it’s just like, you’re far away but you’re still…you’re not slipping away, you’re still with all of the people that mean something to you but it’s just a part of what you’ve gotta do I guess.”

Stockdale, who was born in Brisbane 33 years ago but spent his childhood in both Australia and London, says he’s well aware that critics will be quick to compare ‘Cosmic Egg’ to ‘Wolfmother’ because of the band’s line up change, but in the same breath he claims that he’s not worried either. “Maybe it’s cool, maybe it’s a challenge to do something when the odds are stacked against you just for the hell of it.” He smiles.

Despite all of the uncertainty of the last eighteen months, Stockdale comes across as unnervingly ambitious throughout our interview. Indeed, it’s only when I ask him where he thinks it comes from that he seems to struggle for an answer. “For some reason I think I’m lazy, eh. I think I’m lazy – but maybe that’s what people who are driven or have ambition think, they always think they’re lazy or they could be doing more.” He stops to think. “I’ve just always had that and the same with doing guitar solo or singing and writing a song, I kind of feel like, ‘Would you mind if I just get into this, really get into it?’ And when people can’t do that I’m just like, ‘What’s wrong with you? A what point in your life don’t you live…decide to live’, you know.”

With a new moon rising for Stockdale and Wolfmother, it seems like appropriate advice.

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Britain’s Got Talent: can anyone stop Susan Boyle now she’s been on Oprah?

This blog originally appeared on The Daily Mirror’s We Love Telly blog on May 13th 2009.

It must be nice being Susan Boyle right now. Life seems to revolve around two simple responsibilities.

Firstly, there’s the daily photo call on the steps of her Scottish home. Like a seasoned professional, she normally executes these perfectly – except for the odd ‘flying moment’.

Secondly, there’s the (almost) daily appearance on US television.

Susan was back stateside again this week for a little interview on Oprah, albeit pre-recorded via satellite link from her home in Scotland.

The 47-year-old singing sensation, who was given subtitles so US viewers could understand her wee accent, spoke candidly about her now infamous appearance on Britain’s Got Talent – and the subsequent global phenomenon she has become.

Like her daily photo calls, it was an interview conducted so exquisitely I was half expecting Max Clifford to unveil himself as Susan’s new publicist half way through.

“It all takes a bit of time to take in,” she told Oprah about her worldwide exposure. “Things have happened so quickly.”

She added, as if still a little surprised by everything, that she now gets recognised in the street. Well that’s what a hundred million hits on YouTube will do for you Susan.

As if by magic, in the studio with Oprah was Simon Cowell, who told Susan to focus on Britain’s Got Talent and not let herself get distracted by her new-found celebrity. (He’s obviously keeping that record deal under wraps for now then.)

Like all well honed interviews, there were no new revelations – just more of the same from someone who, in just over a month, has become one of the most talked about people on the planet.

But then, that’s all that’s needed for Susan to continue down the road that will inevitably lead to Susan Boyle: The Movie.

I wonder, after Oprah, can anyone stop Susan Boyle – or at least give her a run for her money – on Britain’s Got Talent?

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Is Demi Moore good or bad news for Britain’s Got Talent?

This blog originally appeared on The Daily Mirror’s We Love Telly blog on May 4th 2009.

It’s been merely a few months, but it’s still hard to remember a time when we didn’t know everything there is to know about Demi Moore.

It’s Twitter’s fault.

Over recent weeks, I and (at the time of writing) 836,390 other people have been following religiously as the Hollywood actress has saved lives, exposed more than she ever did in her films and, along with her husband Ashton Kutcher, become one-half of the micro-blogging world’s first celebrity couple.

But all that pales into insignificance when compared to the global exposure Moore has given Britain’s Got Talent.

It all started with Susan Boyle.

You can argue all you want about Boyle’s talent, but the truth is the Scottish singing sensation would be nothing without the actress. When she tweeted about Boyle shortly after the first episode aired, the world – and most importantly for the wannabe starlet, America – paid attention. A week later and the actress was at it again, this time eulogizing online about the child protégée, Shaheen Jafargholi. “Wow, this kid is something else,” she wrote, crying (I suspect).

She’s become so reliable that it was no surprise when a teary-eyed Moore took to the micro-blogging service this weekend to re-tweet a link about Jamie Pugh, who wowed the judges on Saturday with a performance even Boyle would have been proud of. (Pugh is, of course, essentially the male Susan Boyle – he has the emotional back-story, the song from Les Miserables and the performance power to make not only Amanda Holden but also Demi Moore cry – and, more importantly, tweet.)

But is all this exposure good or bad for Britain’s Got Talent? And what about the contestants Moore is raving about – they’re a lot more than just hopefuls in a talent show now. In the case of Boyle (and I expect, eventually, Pugh as well) Moore has helped create a genuine star; an unknown sensation from Scotland who stands on the cusp of landing an actual record contract and, if rumours are true, appearing on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here.

Unlike previous years, where Boyle, Pugh and Jarfargholi would have merely been early favourites on a bookies chart (which, consequently, they are), they’re already something a lot bigger. Perhaps even something bigger than Britain’s Got Talent itself.

I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

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Britain’s Got Talent: Kelly Brook just doesn’t look comfortable as ‘special guest judge’

This blog originally appeared on The Daily Mirror’s We Love Telly blog on April 27th 2009.

She smiled, occasionally passed judgement and smiled. Then she smiled again.

Just in case you missed it (or even if you were watching and went to make a drink), Kelly Brook made her much talked about debut as a “special guest judge” on Britain’s Got Talent on Saturday night.

It was a blink and you’ll miss it spectacle that came just months after Brook successfully served the shortest term in Britain’s Got Talent – and reality TV show – history.

After watching Saturday’s show, it was not difficult to see why producer’s dropped her from the panel after just six days of filming in January.

Brook just never looked right as BGT’s fourth judge – and neither did the programme.

She seemed to spend most of the show nervously playing with her hair (although admittedly, at times, she was sitting next to Simon Cowell) and when she did pass judgement, her comments lacked the emotion and sincerity of regular panellists Cowell, Amanda Holden and Piers Morgan. It was as if she had just walked in on a happy marriage that’s already a bit complicated by the fact there are two husbands and Ant and Dec.

Although I’m a fan of the presenter, I imagine that had Brook not been present for the discovery of some of the show’s stars (including ballet dancer Holly Steel in Manchester) she wouldn’t have appeared in the third series at all.

But the fact that she did will forever serve as proof that sometimes reality TV just shouldn’t be messed with. Indeed, it should be served with a ‘Fragile – Please Do Not Touch’ sticker in future.

Britain’s Got Talent never needed a new judge did it? It’s already got ten million fixated weekly moderators who are plenty good enough.

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Britain’s Got Talent’s Susan Boyle on South Park – What’s next, The Simpsons?

This blog originally appeared on The Daily Mirror’s We Love Telly blog on April 23rd 2009.

Just when you thought you had seen it all, and read all that’s possible to read about Susan Boyle, the Britain’s Got Talent singing sensation has cropped up somewhere else.

This time on the American cartoon series South Park.

In the episode, which is due to air tomorrow in the UK, the character Ike cites Boyle as the reason why he and Cartman are escaping the US to go and live with Somalian pirates.

“Dear mom and dad, I am running away,” he scribbles in a hurried note.

“Everyone at school is a f**king idiot and if one more person talks to me about that Susan Boyle performance of Les Miserables I was going to puke my balls out through my mouth.”

Quite frankly, I don’t blame him – I’m worried about the spread of Boyle-mania as well.

When I first blogged about the 47-year-old, I said she was proof that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover – and I still stand by that.

But, in the two weeks (two weeks!) that have passed, things have changed – and not necessarily for the better.

Boyle’s everywhere now, revealing her charming life story to just about anyone who will listen. If they’ll let her (and in the case of her Larry King appearance, it was almost a mandatory condition), she’ll sing for them as well.

Everywhere she goes, she’s being treated like the winner. But while it’s true she’s won the right to have her voice heard, Susan Boyle hasn’t won Britain’s Got Talent. Not yet anyway.

Right now, she’s still just one of a number of hopefuls in with a chance to be crowned champion and perform at the Royal Variety Performance – and with this growing exposure, I’m not even sure she will. Indeed, she’ll probably have staged a multi-night residency at the Royal Albert Hall by then.

Boyle is in danger of peaking too soon. We should use South Park as a warning to let her go back to being a contestant on a talent show.

I mean, what’s next, The Simpsons?

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